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Cultural Heritage Fail: The American Revolution in NYS

New York was an object of great importance during the American Revolution. At the kick off of the Path through History project in August 2012, plenary speaker Ken Jackson, Columbia University, criticized New York for its inadequate efforts to tell its story compared to what Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Massachusetts are doing. He welcomed the opportunity that New York finally was going to get it right.

By coincidence, at the New York History community roundtable convened by Assemblyman Englebright several weeks ago in connection with his proposed New York History Commission, he began with a similar plea for New York to tell its story as well as those same states Jackson had mentioned 20 months earlier. He was particularly incensed over the new TV show Turn about America’s first spy ring set in the very community he represents.

That show has been the subject of two recent New York History posts by Elizabeth Kahn Kaplan, “AMC’s Turn: Lively Fiction, But Tenuous Connection to Facts,” and “Fact and Fiction in Brian Kilenade’s ‘Secret Six.’” Her focus, as suggested by the titles of the posts, is on the accuracy of Hollywood in its depiction of the historical story. This makes sense since she has been a New York Council for the Humanities speaker on the subject. She stated her concerns in an email to me:

“We historians work long and hard to represent historical events as closely as we can to the truth. It seems a never-ending challenge to refute errors works distributed via mass media for popular consumption that purport to be nonfiction but are glaringly not.”

Engelbright’s concerns are consistent with Jackson’s: the ongoing failure of New York to promote its own story. That deficiency is now compounded by the TV show whether it is accurate or not.

Setauket, Long Island, has been recreated in Virginia where the show is filmed. At the end of each show there is a plug for Virginia. It is Virginia which is promoting visiting Virginia for American Revolution tourism and using the Culper Spy of Long Island to do so. Now Virginia not only does a better job of telling its own story in the American Revolution than New York does, it does a better job of telling New York’s story!

George Washington Returning to New York City on Evacuation DayHollywood has provided another squandered opportunity for New York to promote its story in American Revolution. The network show Sleepy Hollow uses actual aerial photography of the village showing the Tappan Zee bridge over the Hudson River (before the new construction). With a population of 144,000, the TV town dwarfs the real village by a factor of more than 10. The fictional population number draws on the New Testament Rapture and indeed the show portrays a cosmic showdown between the forces of light led by George Washington and those of darkness. Still, one should keep mind, as I reported in a previous post on Thomas Cole’s painting of Fort Putnam, that the historical showdown between Washington and Arnold was understood by the people of the time in precisely those terms.

Given these two gifts from Hollywood, one might think that finally New York would rise to occasion and give a shout-out to its own place at the birth of the country. It’s not as if people at the grassroots level aren’t trying. For example, there was a huge article “Where the Past Is Never Left Behind” in the New York Times last September by a wife and mother who learned to love her family visits to Fort Ticonderoga despite her initial misgiving about five-hour trip to see re-enactments. This is real heads-to-beds tourist trip to upstate New York which is exactly what the Path program is supposed to encourage. You don’t just happen to visit Fort Ti, you have to make the effort to go there. But Fort Ti’s eleventh annual seminar on the American Revolution will be in September so it is not part of the June Path body count. Neither was its French and Indian War seminar in May. Maybe next year they’ll move the events.

Here in Westchester where I live, a new group is forming to promote the story of the American Revolution in the county. The first meeting was held in May at Iona College. It recently has taken possession of the Tom Paine Museum located up the road from the school. The College has presented at the last two social studies teachers conferences in Westchester and is seeking to brand itself as the American Revolution school in the county. As it turns out, Jeff Cleary, the new pastor at the White Plains Presbyterian Church which just celebrated its 350th anniversary, relocated from the very Presbyterian Church in Setauket that the spies attended. One of the people buried in that White Plains church is Jacob Purdy whose house a few blocks away was used as Washington’s Headquarters during the Battle of White Plains in 1776 and 1778. It is now is home to the White Plains Historical Society. (Note: Neither Tom Paine nor the White Plains Washington’s Headquarters are on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary.)

Attending the meeting at Iona College was Jim Kaplan who lives nearby. He recently forwarded an announcement to The New York History Blog about the activities which have been organized for July 4th in Lower Manhattan. Speaking to Community Board 1 in Manhattan, Kaplan expressed shock at the appalling lack of knowledge by people who live and work in Lower Manhattan of the American Revolution events which occurred there. I attended a planning session at Fraunces Tavern for what the people hope will become an annual program to remember those events. The immediate area and the five boroughs in general abound in American Revolution sites and stories. The number of American Revolution Paths through History which could be created in New York is mind-boggling.

As it turns out, one intrepid reporter created such a path. Simone Streeter described in an article entitled “Manhattan Day Trip to the Nation’s Start,” how she crafted her own American Revolution tour in Manhattan. She visited the Hamilton Grange National Memorial, the Morris-Jumel Mansion and the Dyckman Farmhouse Museum “situated along the narrow spine of upper Manhattan.” She thus linked Washington, Hamilton, and Burr. She detailed what subways she took and where one could eat in this one-day excursion into our birth story. Carol Ward, the executive director of the Morris-Jumel Mansion was the keynote speaker at the “Museums as Community Hubs” conference of the Connecticut League of History Organizations, June 2 in Mystic. As it turns out she lives in Westchester and I invited her to join our effort there to promote the American Revolution.

(Note: Morris-Jumel Mansion with its Burr connection is listed on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary, Hamilton is not. Neither is Federal Hall nor Trinity Church. One would never know from the Path itinerary that the iconic image of the statue of George III being toppled after the reading of the Declaration of Independence occurred in Lower Manhattan.)

On June 11, a press conference was held along the Old Albany Post Road in Philipstown, Putnam County. The Preservation League of New York State selected the six-mile stretch as one of its biannual Seven to Save threatened historic sites in the state. The road which continues north to the Fishkill Supply Depot was used by numerous Revolutionary dignitaries like Washington. Arnold’s home that he successfully fled from was located near the road but closer to the Hudson River as he rowed, or was rowed, to work at West Point.

(Note: No site in either Dutchess or Putnam County is listed on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary.)

As previously reported, people in Central New York aka the Mohawk Valley created their own Revolutionary War Path through History with a website, a brochure, and a performance this August of Drums along the Mohawk with the Historical Society of Rockland County planning a bus trip to even further upstate.

(Note: Four sites in the Mohawk Valley are listed on the Path through History Revolutionary War itinerary. On the theme page which is separate from the itinerary, there is a link to the much more comprehensive and locally-created Mohawk Path through History site. That site  includes many locations not on the state website for the American Revolution.)

As an example of the continued but unsung legacy of the American Revolution, when the World War II destroyer the USS Slater was brought by tugboat from Albany to Staten Island for repairs, Rosehn Gipe, the business manager for the Destroyer escort Historical Museum said about the challenge of bringing the ship south: “There’s a choke point at West Point” in explaining why the journey couldn’t be done in the winter. Once again the famous S-curve that was crucial in the thinking of protecting the object of great importance during the Revolution made itself felt. At least there was no chain there this time.

(Note: Ironically while the USS Slater was sailing south past the fort Arnold tried to transfer to the British, the Slater Memorial Museum in Norwich, CT., Arnold’s hometown, opened an exhibit “Key to Liberty: Benedict Arnold, an American Hero on Lake Champlain” with a focus on the Battle of Valcour. A local group is planning a musical. Even Connecticut is telling the story of what happen in New York during the American Revolution.)

To add insult to injury, there was a press release on June 9, “Museum of the American Revolution Reveals as Detailed Exhibit Plans, Overview of Museum Experience Designed to Engage in Our Heritage: The museum will bring to life the events, people and ideals of the founding of the United States.” The museum will be in Philadelphia.

AWI_battles_in_Upper_New_York_stateThe Path through History website does list several of the sites mentioned above. But if you are the Alexander Hamilton Awareness Society planning a visit to sites related to him, don’t waste your time with the Path website. If you are interested in Benedict Arnold and Major Andre don’t waste your time either. And there is only one Washington’s headquarters listed, the state site. Amazingly, if you do visit that one in Newburgh, you learn that it is closely connected with two nearby sites involved in the American Revolution also managed by the state, New Windsor Cantonment and Knox’s Headquarters, neither of which are listed on the Path site. Nor is Mount Gulian where Von Steuben stayed and the Sons of Cincinnati was formed.

In Westchester, Cuomo’s home county, the record is equally abysmal. Consider some of what else is missing besides sites noted above.

1. The Rochambeau Trail which crosses New York – it serves as a reminder how our story is connected to events in other states.

2. The Rye Historical Society  – John Adams stopped there when he traveled the Boston Post Road to Philadelphia.

3. The John Jay sites: one is a state site and the other just got a Path through History sign and both are omitted!

John Glover, the Massachusetts fisherman inbetween ferrying the troops to safety after the Battle of Long island and then across the Delaware was instrumental in the Battle of Pell. That battleground is now a municipal golf course. Tours led there by NPS St. Paul’s Church, Mount Vernon, have to be carefully scheduled or you still will be hit by small fast-moving objects!

People in New York are trying to tell the story. It’s struggle. They need help.

Even the locations where there are the famous New York State historical markers commemorating the events of the American Revolution aren’t listed. Nor are various monuments and memorials. They don’t rate being listed under Path criteria. So if you are a real American Revolutionary enthusiast and want to immerse yourself in New York’s story, don’t waste your time with the Path website.

Jackson’s hope of New York successfully telling its story about the birth of the country is far from being fulfilled. The website isn’t simply abysmal, it’s an embarrassment. ILoveNY doesn’t have the expertise, staff, or resources to tell the story of New York’s role in America’s birth for cultural heritage tourists or in professional development programs for teachers. How do we get the legislature and Governor to realize that?

Illustrations: John Van Arsdale raising the American flag over Fort George; middle, George Washington Returning to New York City on Evacuation Day; and below, American Revolution battles in upstate New York.

12 thoughts on “Cultural Heritage Fail: The American Revolution in NYS

  1. Keep fighting Peter and others will join you . The important Revolutionary War sites in Lower Manhattan, for example, are legion, and very few people know about them. There are 50,000 more people now living south of Chambers Street than when I began my July 4 Nightime walking tour for the Fraunces Tavern Museum 18 years ago.. At that time, virtually no one knew that General Horatio Gates, the commanding geneeral at the battle of Saratoga, the most important battle in the American Revolution was buried in an unmarked grave in Trinity Churchyard, as is Alexander Hamilton, who led the key assault at Yorktown and Marinus Willett, the hero fo the battle of Fort Stanwix ,the diplomat who settled the Creek War in Georgia and the Mayor of New York in 1807.A significant purpose of of the July 4 Lower Manhattan festival that you mention is to bring attention to these sites and many others and the importance to the American Revolution of the individuals located there. Unfortunately not enough of the new and old residents of Lower Manhattan or the increasing number of people visiting the area realize
    that New York City has just as many imprtant Revolutionary War sites, as Boston, Philadelphia or Virginia and probably more.,
    It is high time that state history and tourism officials recognized this fact. Come to our Lower Manhattan July 4 festival

    1. James Kaplan, I’ve sent an email to the info@july4th, etc. address, asking that they direct it to your attention. It contains a lot of info on more heroes of the American Revolution who are known to be buried at Trinity. Of course, there are probably dozens more there who remain unaccounted for, especially if Van Cortlandt’s sugar house prison was on the northwest corner of the churchyard, and if it’s true that prisoners who’d died in the Livingston sugar house just down the street were buried there anonymously.
      At least the Memorial for Unknown Revolutionary War Heroes is at Trinity, as well as the Society of the Cincinnati Memorial, with its incomplete list of members who are interred in the churchyard.
      If the info@july 4th, etc. address was the wrong place to send my message to you, please let me know! Thanks, and thanks also to Peter, for keeping at this.

  2. The answer to your last question, unfortunately, is that you don’t. I grew up in New Rochelle. I played golf at Split Rock in Pelham, played baseball at Glover Field in Mt. Vernon, went swimming not 300 yards from where the Battle of Pell’s Point began and followed the route of Howe’s right wing as he moved north to White Plains, never realizing I was doing so in the footsteps of the soldiers of the Revolutionary War. The way to success is what Iona College and Westchester County are doing. For myself, I’m trying to contribute by writing articles for a RevWar journal that concentrate on the Hudson Valley theatre of war and maintaining a Twitter page that points out the less known sites. In the end, the only way to move politicians is by contributing to their campaigns or convincing them that promoting RevWar history in NY, in general, and the Hudson/Mohawk corridor in particular, promotes the economy, jobs and education–a pretty important Trifecta for them.

  3. Peter~
    One of the problems with the “PATHS” perspective on Revolutionary War history in New York is the focus on tourism destinations/venues. There is amazingly interesting pre-colonial, colonial and Revolutionary history along the “western frontier” north-south line of the Fort Stanwix Treaty. “former” Indian territory where Tory farmers and Indian allies/supporters, an interesting cast of well known characters, gathered for their forays north, south and east through the entire Revolutionary War period. Except for Ft. Stanwix there are no Forts, no huge Battlefields , few Historic markers and no informational signage in the area.

    I have plotted a several potential “drive yourself” or bike tours, a circular route that could start at any point from Fort Plain south to Oneonta, west to the Unadilla River and on to Onaquaga. return to the Unadilla River and north along the Unadilla River to Fort Stanwix and back east to Fort Plain. One of the drawing points of that route is that there was, historically, lots of activity and constant travel along any part of it. From Fort Plain/Canajoharie it was the northeastern end of the Clinton and Sullivan Campaign. The landscape has changed little over 235 years – (or returned to more closely to what it was like 235 years ago), and one can visualize actions, without benefit of re-enactors. That is a hard sell to the tourism people – the results are not measureable. Parts of that route do appear on the PTH website, in bits attached to a few historic markers but not on a map or in an actual “path” format. We can hope for some help and future improvement.

  4. The John Glover story starts even before the battle of NY. He and his marines, a militia group organized by the British, got to Boston before Washington arrived. They were ordered out of Marblehead, MA to help the Brits defend themselves during the post Concord siege, , and, on the way, realized that were about to be killing Americans. Glover announced that they would arrive as patriots, not pro-British supporters, but all who wished to drop out then could do so. Some did leave. Glover came with a group of men so well organized and disciplined that Washington immediately saw his potential, and made them his Presidential Guard. Glover even gave up his quarters,the nicest abandoned home in the area, to the late arriving GW, who was looking for an appropriate place to call his HQ.
    Before his Pell’s Point (“Split RocK”) success, Glover and his men fought a delaying tactic at Kips Bay to allow the retreating Americans to make their way uptown. Some of those retreating CT farmers had bright nothing but farm implements to fight with. So much for Congressional preparedness !

    Later, and not surprising, it was Glover and his marines who got Washington and his troops and cannons (including those of Henry Knox !) across the Delaware on the way to a great moral victory at Trenton (and then Princeton).

  5. A response to the comments posted to date about the three Revolutionary War figures buried in NYC, bicycle tours offered by Leigh Eckman and Peter Feinman’s quotes and comments regarding: Turn, Sleepy Hollow, the Secret Six, The Mohawk Valley Path Through History, and Drums Along the Mohawk Outdoor Drama:

    First, I support efforts put forth for the cause of increasing the awareness and collaboration between entities to illuminate the relevance of New York State history.

    As writer, producer, director of Drums Along the Mohawk Outdoor Drama in Mohawk, NY I have been doing what I can to contribute. Prior to the launch of the Path Through History I organized a well-attended grass roots gathering at the Herkimer Home State Historic Site with the cooperation of site director Karen Sheckells. In March 2012 the First Forum for Creative Tourism Development was launched with creative and enthusiastic participants. It was reconvened again just one month later with keynote speaker, Mr. Peter Feinman. Thank you Peter for making the trip.

    Second, I owe many thanks to the Mohawk Valley Path Through History Group for supporting my vision. We successfully debuted the show in August 2012. It co-incided with the 235th anniversary of the Battle of Oriskany reenactment at Gelston Castle Estate in Mohawk, NY, also a relevant plot point in the show.
    Next, I moved back east after living in Cleveland, Ohio for four years.
    This gave me a much shorter distance to travel to attend one of the public forums held at the beginning of the New York Conference on History in Hyde Park. The topic revolved around continued efforts to break down barriers amongst professionals and organizations alike in order to pursue common goals.

    I have obtained permission to be present at Federal Hall during the July 4th celebration in NYC to support the site’s initiatives while bringing attention to the historical aspects of our story.

    I am working to bring more people to tour the Herkimer Home State Historic Site during the July 17/18 portion of the Erie Canal Bicycle Tour organized by Parks and Trails NY. Fort Stanwix National Monument was the target of the Aug 1777 siege we illustrate in the show. The riders stay overnight on the grounds of this national treasure on July 17th. National Park staff and volunteers make it a habit to be available and visible to the riders to share its history.

    I have collaborated with the Historical Society of Rockland County to organize the overnight guided bus tour to our show. The bus tour stops at 12 historically relevant NYS locations that tie the plot line and characters to the history told in the show.

    I have had two highly competent directors quit the show because my story holds closer to truth than fiction. I believe our story holds up with all the drama human interaction can reveal.

    The three personalities Mr. Kaplan illuminates, Gen’l Horatio Gates, Alexander Hamilton and Marinus Willett are all directly or indirectly tied to the plot line of our show that focuses on the upstate NY events of 1777. I have a beautiful venue to tell our story whose owners support my vision.

    I am a native upstate New Yorker who will continue to be passionately involved in joint endeavors amongst like-minded people via the Path Through History initiative and any other collaborations that can be developed.

    Kind regards,
    Kyle Jenks

  6. Barnet Schechter’s book ” The Battle For New York: The City at the Heart of the American Revolution” has a suggested walking tour through the places in in New York City and Westchester County where this most critical battle took place. It also lists a website, that has detailed instructions for this tour. In addition, also lists driving tours throughout NY and NJ. The current Paths Though History project .is fluff-focused and will never do much to advance the cause of NYS history so I think we have to work for the establishment of the proposed NYS History Commission to make things right.

    By the way, “Sons of Liberty” is a six part miniseries has been fully cast, and starts production this summer. Sons Of Liberty follows – Sam Adams (Ben Barnes), John Adams (Henry Thomas), Paul Revere (Michael Raymond James), John Hancock (Rafe Spall) and Joseph Warren (Ryan Eggold)– as they band together in secrecy to create an independent US, and change the course of history Kari Skogland (Boardwalk Empire) is directing the mini, written by Stephen David and David C. White. I have no idea if the NYS part of the war will b told and if so, how it will be treated.

  7. Your observations are well-founded. My company, America’s History, LLC just finished a three-day bus tour called “Forgotten Allies: The Oneida Indians in the Revolutionary War” led by historian and author James Kirby Martin. We had people from Virginia, Rhode Island, New Jersey, New York City and Long Island, but little interest from central New York. It was difficult to get press coverage prior to the event, although we did have a TV reporter interview Dr. Martin at Fort Stanwix. We do a number of different tours themed to the Revolutionary and French & Indian Wars in New York. It would be well worth NYS to help us promote these tours because our participants sleep, eat and buy things in the state–pretty simple concept.

  8. Several years ago I collaborated on a book documenting the Sullivan Campaign of the Revolutionary War: the Impact on Livingston County and a website. I’ve also created an OnCell audio tour of the sites in Livingston County, where the westernmost battle of the Revolutionary War in NYS occurred.

  9. As the Historian for the Town of Brookhaven, on Long Island, allow me to comment. The Culper Spy Ring has never been given its rightful place in New York State, when discussing or teaching the history of the American Revolution. Although the first known published work on the subject was printed in 1939 by the Suffolk County Historian, Morton Pennypacker (General Washington’s Spies On Long Island and in New York), somehow it never made it to textbooks, or teachers’ lesson plans, at least outside of Long Island. Corey Ford’s A Peculiar Service, A Narrative of Espionage in and around New York during the American Revolution followed in 1965. Washington’s Spies, by Alexander Rose in 2006 (the 2014 Kindle edition updates his primary source information) and George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade in 2013. The purpose of my blog entry is NOT to write reviews of any of the publications, which can be found elsewhere, but rather to illustrate there is no shortage of information on the subject. My examples don’t even include lectures, various periodical and newspaper articles over the years, and more importantly, the letters available on the Library of Congress web site. The AMC Series, TURN, is exactly what it is advertised to be: a television series, based on the story of the Culper Spy Ring. Now I will comment further – it is loosely based on the Culper Spy Ring. Accept it for what it is. As Historians, it is our mission to learn the real story. But television has a way of permeating our bones, and TURN has brought the hamlet of Setauket into everyday conversation across the country. Within days of the first episode, a local resident told me she placed an order with a West Coast company via telephone. When she gave her zip code, the name Setauket popped up, and the salesperson remarked that she just heard of Setauket, from watching TURN. Brian Kilmeade has a nationally syndicated televison show. His book publicity brought the story of the Culper Spy Ring across the country, something no other publication was able to do. Now it is time for the real story to be heard, and more importantly to be taught. How many classroom teachers will incorporate the Culper Spy Ring into their curriculum? How many college students will opt to research and write about the Culper Spy Ring? How many graduate students will take the known information and dig deeper to find some of the missing pieces?
    The Three Village Historical Society in Setauket has an excellent exhibit on the Culper Spy Ring ( The Path Through History takes tourists in and around the areas from Stony Brook, Setauket, and Port Jefferson. A telephone app available through LINSHA (Long Island North Shore Heritage Area) will direct you to specific sites. The following web sites and contain two pdf files on the Culper Spy Ring; one includes directions to each site on the cell phone tour and the other is the Setauket Spy Ring story. Brookhaven was the birthplace of four of the major persons known to be involved in the Culper Spy Ring during the American Revolution: Col. Benjamin Tallmadge, Abraham Woodhull, Caleb Brewster, and Austin Roe. The fifth, with rightful respect, was Robert Townsend, a native of Oyster Bay. Tallmadge, Brewster, and Woodhull were born in Setauket. Roe in nearby Port Jefferson, then known as Drowned Meadow. We are proud of these patriots, and have struggled for years to tell this most important piece of New York State History. Barbara M. Russell, Town of Brookhaven Historian
    Barbara M. Russell

    1. SCHOHARIE COUNTY, NEW YORK…….WE ARE REVOLUTIONARY WAR HISTORY in East Central New York State. Hasn’t anyone been here? Is anyone interested in what happen upstate near the end of the War. Some of the Families that their ancestors fought in The Revolutionary War until, 1789 still live in this area. In my two families alone we had at least 10 or more patriots. We have a Fort in Schoharie, New York that presently is being used as a Museum; it was a Church that was used during the War as a Fort . Virginia, Pennsylvania, etc. , they are on top of their history. We here in this New York County was named “The BreadBasket of the Revolutionary War). It was in the North that it ended. COME SEE US. We have lots of history books that tell our stories. Janice Catherine Lawyer

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